Philosopher Rebecca Roache is in charge of a team of scholars focused upon the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. Dr Roache claims the prison sentence of serious criminals could be made worse by extending their lives... "There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence," she said. A second scenario would be to upload human minds to computers to speed up the rate at which the mind works... "If the speed-up were a factor of a million, a millennium of thinking would be accomplished in eight and a half hours... Uploading the mind of a convicted criminal and running it a million times faster than normal would enable the uploaded criminal to serve a 1,000 year sentence in eight-and-a-half hours. This would, obviously, be much cheaper for the taxpayer than extending criminals’ lifespans to enable them to serve 1,000 years in real time."Of course, uploading a organismically incarnated human mind into a computer program is a profoundly biologically ignorant and conceptually incoherent notion. Although it would be a pity to interrupt the obvious enjoyments "philosopher" Rebecca Roache takes from her contemplation of the prospect of prisoners subject to centuries in virtual hells -- abandon hope all ye who enter here! and just think of the tax savings! -- one notes that the whole litany of techno-transcendental robo-cultic wish-fulfillment fantasies is unspooling in Dr. Roache's penal ruminations, from flogging software-expert/ amateur-genrontologist Aubrey deGrey's SENS elixer of life, to hawking nootropic and nutritional "enhancement" like a boner pill muscle powder krill-oil snake-oil salesman on a Vegas showroom floor, to cyberangel uploads in Holodeck Hell. There is absolutely nothing new in any of these stale futurological proposals -- although, as usual, we are expected to gasp at the audacity of such Big Thinking -- only the modest innovation of their punitive application to would-be criminals rather than the usual effort to seduce wannabe consumers.
"To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us," Dr Roache said. "Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free? When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments -- the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future."Although Dr. Roache declares these to be "questions of technology," none of the "technologies-in-question" exist or are likely ever to do so -- not in the forms on which she would fixate our attention. Clearly, "the technological" is functioning here in the usual futurological way, as a placeholder for an amplified fantasy of efficacious agency -- an instrumentalization and hence implementation of individual will that dreams of breaking the impasse of lifeway diversity that yields the frustrations of stakeholder politics and ethical responsibility.
It isn't true that anybody is "spooked" by virtual hell prisons, because none do or will ever exist. But when Dr. Roache admonishes us to overcome the timidity we feel because her proposals are "unfamiliar," she is indulging in the all-TOO-familiar cadences of the entrepreneurial innovative disruptive novel fresh bleeding edge hot tech boosterism of the "thought leader" repackaging the same old stale useless shit as New! and Improved! I'm sorry to break it to Dr. Roache, but of course the "thought leaders" of the CIA beat the transhumanoids to the punch this time around. We are all already quite acquainted with "enhanced interrogation" and the use of "psychoactive drugs" "to tinker with... brains." As usual, looking at political and ethical dilemmas through "the lens of the future" tends to take us on a reactionary trip to authoritarian retro-futures bathed in pastels and promising magickal powers. Let's ask somebody who has spent time in the torturer's chair "whether it's inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone." A certain technology... really, it's hard not to shake your head at the sheer obtuse obviousness of it all. Everything new is old again.
Now, nothing is more commonplace than futurologists rebranding their own rebranding projects (in the service of stale goods and incumbent interests) as "philosophical speculation." I ask my readers just what is presumably clarified by Dr. Roache's "thought experiments"-cum-wish-fulfillment fantasies here, apart from symptoms of what look to be some ugly desires... hey, maybe that's what she means by "spooky"? Although Dr. Roache comes by her philosophy title honestly, I cannot say that I think the business she is in really is better described as "philosophy" than as PR. I should point out that she is a Research Fellow at transhumanist Nick Bostrom's Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, a scarcely stealthed Robot Cult outfit. From its birth in peddling market futures with just-so stories futurism has been making bets (usually with other people's money) and calling the result thinking, and usually Thinking Big. I'm not a futurist, but I'll venture the prophesy that we'll be hearing more Big Thoughts from the likes of Dr. Roache in... the future!